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The Lowdown on Japanese Beef: Wagyu, Kobe, Matsusaka… What’s the Difference?

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Whenever I hear (or read) someone say that Kobe beef is THE STANDARD and far superior than wagyu, I go HUH? Kobe beef IS wagyu so how can something be better than itself?

Skewered wagyu at a food stall outside Fushimi Inari, Kyoto
Skewered wagyu at a food stall outside Fushimi Inari, Kyoto

“Wa” means Japanese and “gyu” means cow

Wagyu is Japanese beef cattle — Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn. In usage, however, the term “wagyu” also means beef produced by these cattle.

Kobe beef, Matsusaka beef, Yonezawa beef and Omi beef are all wagyu.

The specific names — Kobe, Matsusaka, Omi and Yonezawa — simply trace the regional origin of the wagyu

Kobe beef is wagyu from the Hyogo Prefecture, the capital of which is Kobe.

Matsusaka beef comes from the Matsusaka region of the Mie Prefecture.

Yonezawa beef is from the region of the same name in the Yamagata Prefecture.

And then there’s Omi (also spelled Ohmi) beef from the Shiga prefecture, the old name of which is Omi. Omi beef is the oldest wagyu and said to be food for the samurai.

Wagyu produced outside these regions cannot be referred to as Kobe, Matsusaka, Omi and Yonezawa. They are, well, wagyu.

Does an “authentic” wagyu experience require a fine dining setting?

Hell, no — not in Japan anyway. Wagyu, in all regional classifications, is served in izakayas (Japanese bars with casual setting), sold as street food, in food trucks and, of course, in the market.

Cheesy Kobe Beef Sandwich from Kitchen Ohana | Rinku Premium Outlets, Osaka
Cheesy Kobe Beef Sandwich from Kitchen Ohana Food Truck | Rinku Premium Outlets, Osaka

It doesn’t mean though that food truck and market stall wagyu is less expensive. Whether you eat it off a skewer, from a fancy hand-painted plate or between slices of bread, wagyu is expensive, period.

Do you have to go to Kobe to taste authentic Kobe wagyu?

No. Kobe wagyu is sold in other parts of Japan. It is also exported to other countries.

Is Kobe beef really the most superior wagyu?

It will always boil down to personal preference. People who automatically equate cost with quality will be quick to conclude that the (generally) pricier Kobe wagyu is best of all.

Kobe beef in Kyoto
Kobe beef in Kyoto

However, if we set aside buzzwords (I understand as well that “Kobe” is easier to pronounce and remember than Matsusaka and Yonezawa) and judge Japanese beef objectively, it is not the regional origin of wagyu but, rather, the grade of the meat that determines superiority.

The grading is based on “marbling”, “color”, “firmness of the meat” and “color and quality of the fat”. A grade of A5 is the highest while C1 is the lowest.

I’ve tried Kobe beef and Matsusaka beef but not wagyu from Omi and Yonezawa. Between Matsusaka and Kobe wagyu, Matsusaka wins. Hands down.

The best wagyu I ever had — including last year’s Matsusakagyu Yakiniku M dinner — was at Kuromon Market in Osaka. Yes, it was Matsusaka wagyu.

Wagyu (japanese beef) at Kuromon Market in Osaka, Japan
Kobe and Matsusaka wagyu at Kuromon Market in Osaka

The Matsusakagyu Yakiniku M dinner was quite an experience with all the appurtenances including fruit sake but if we’re talking about beef and nothing but beef, the Matsusaka wagyu at Kuromon, with a grade of A5, was far better. We simply chose the meat, it was grilled right in front of us and we ate it, on our feet, with the fat and juices drizzling down our chin. Amen.

Is wagyu produced outside Japan?

Japanese cattle have been exported to other countries including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia.

However, beef produced in countries from cattle imported from Japan, or cross-bred with cattle imported from Japan or descended from cattle imported from Japan, cannot carry regional wagyu names such as Kobe or Matsusaka. There is even a serious issue as to whether they can be called wagyu at all.